Cherríe Moraga begins her new play, The Mathematics of Love, with a cleansing ritual. A servant named Nana (Carla Pantoja) sweeps the stage clear of the past and then, to close the spell, washes the bad juju off of her hands. In her playwright-director’s statement, Moraga notes that the initial catalyst for the play stemmed from her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not just her mother’s life that she’s cleansing, Moraga opens the narrative out to include the cleansing of the people indigenous to Mexico.
She incorporates that larger sense of history chiefly in the person of Malinxe (Veronica Maynez), a 16th-century Native American slave who was given to, and then became the mistress of, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés. The fictional conception of her character is credited to a different playwright, Ricardo A. Bracho, from his short play Ni Madre, or Malinxe Takes a Vacation. While Moraga works diligently to make the two storylines run parallel — Peaches (Rose Portillo), the stand-in for her Mexican mother, marries Poppa (George Killingsworth), an Anglo man — our emotional connection to her family’s story is diluted by the historic overlay.
Mathematics begins inside Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel. With its Moorish-Spanish interiors, the Brava Theater is an ideal stage to summon up that building’s 1920s sense of grandeur. Peaches and Poppa are meeting their adult children for a celebration. Daughter (Sarita Ocón), who is unnamed, arrives first but they also have a son named “God.” While the three of them are waiting in the lobby for him to show up, Daughter does give an unsettling explanation for the nickname. His absence could be a reference to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and/or just a dig at a sibling who’s grown too self-important to see to his family.
Peaches and her daughter appear to be close, but there’s a strain in their relationship. The daughter is a lesbian, and she’s in mourning over the recent death of her wife. (We don’t learn how she died.) What the play doesn’t make explicit is whether her mother disapproved of her being gay before, as well as after exhibiting symptoms from Alzheimer’s. They only have one direct exchange where her mother expresses her disapproval openly. When she later apologizes to her daughter for the careless remark, it’s accepted without any hesitation or pushback.
Real-life conflicts between LGBTQI children and their disapproving parents seldom look or sound like this. Those interactions are fraught with unmet expectations on both sides of the equation, and they don’t get worked out so easily. Moraga doesn’t delve into the complexities of that relationship because there isn’t any narrative room left to do so. It’s crowded with the rich textures of Malinxe’s, and thereby Mexico’s, story. This mother-daughter exchange felt unexplored, the details too painful to study close-up. It’s as if the playwright started on a journey to understand her mother’s past and, once there, decided to turn her personal story into a political one.
There’s much to be said for leading with identity politics. Through Malinxe, the audience learns about Spanish colonialism, destructive Catholicism, and the subjugation of a people. As a mirroring story for Peaches, the strategy is less effective. Wearing braids similar to Frida Kahlo’s, Maynez reincarnates a near-mythical persona with great charm and charisma. But if Portillo had a dual role as both Peaches and Malinxe — granted that’s a structural impossibility as written — the two ideas might have come together more seamlessly. (Additionally, Portillo does play a slave girl. Did the thought of the mother as Malinxe ever cross the playwright’s desk in an earlier draft?)
The Mathematics of Love is intent on healing the past, both Peaches’ own and that of her native Mexico. It’s an ambitious undertaking, a writer’s attempt to chronicle the private lives of her family members while situating them within a broader, historical context. The play wouldn’t have had any less of an impact if the focus had remained solely on Peaches and her family, expanding on what was left unsaid between them. But in these competing narratives, the emotional one, of a mother slowly losing her memory and her mind, gets swallowed up by history.
The Mathematics of Love, through Aug. 27, at Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., 415-641-7657 or brava.org